The Foreclosure Crisis Has Walloped Florida’s Gulf Coast, But Sprawl Still Threatens the State’s Endangered Panther.
Photo by David Shindle, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
The driest dry season on record had just ended and southwest Florida’s remaining wilderness was sere. In the Corkscrew Swamp’s Lettuce Lake, grass poked up from cracked grey soil. Wildfires still smoldered in sections of Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge where smoke wafted over the cypress groves and saw palmettos.
Lisa Östberg, a middle-aged woman with bobbed brown hair and sunglasses, was bouncing down a track at the wheel of a swamp buggy, an open-air platform slapped on top of a monster truck-sized chassis. At a grassy area, Östberg dismounted and pointed to cat tracks in the sand. As wide as apples, they were fresh, unpocked by yesterday’s downpour. Panthers are lazy, just like people, she explained. They’d rather walk down a road than bushwhack through a swamp.
“Wouldn’t you love to be out here and have a panther stroll by?” she asked. She had to settle for hints of the panther: paw prints and scat. Although she has volunteered around the cats’ habitat for years, Östberg has never been rewarded with a glimpse of a panther in the wild.
Depending on whom you ask, Florida panthers are either the state’s most elusive animal – or not nearly elusive enough. Government panther biologist Mark Lotz said, “I think we can prolong the extinction, hopefully indefinitely, but we have to remain vigilant.” However, even a small population of agile, unmanaged predators concerns some Floridians.
Donovan Smith, the owner of a private animal reserve, complained about panthers killing his neighbor’s goats. Bucky Flowers, a Naples taxidermist, said he felt helpless to defend against the cats that steal onto his property and kill his pet deer.
No one openly favors panther extinction but, as with the feud arising from spotted owls and loggers in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a simmering resentment against animals that are perceived to be coddled at the expense of the economy, which in Florida means building houses. But panthers, which can grow to 150 pounds and more than five feet long, present additional difficulties. In recent years panthers have killed or injured sheep, emus, dogs, and a llama. It is a small miracle that there’s no recorded instance of a Florida panther killing a person.
Florida panthers used to roam much of the southeastern US. Today, there are estimated to be about 100 panthers left, confined to south Florida’s patchwork of swamps, forests, farms, and exurban sprawl. They are believed to be the only remaining big cat population east of the Mississippi. While animal conservation for its own sake motivates activists like Östberg, there’s something broader happening as well. Because they are big, furry, and predatory – so-called “charismatic megafauna” – panthers attract attention to southwest Florida’s complicated ecological situation. “The panther is like the child in a divorce,” one environmentalist said. “It gets all the attention but isn’t really the issue.”
The issue, simply put, is the apparent trade-off between habitat conservation and economic development.
Panthers are a tentpole species. A male requires 200 square miles of territory and kills other males that invade his turf. Like most endangered species, the existential threat to panthers is habitat destruction. And since they range so widely, panther conservation efforts, by default, benefit everything else living on the same land.
In April, five of Florida’s representatives in Congress, all Democrats, sent a letter to President Obama requesting a protection called “critical habitat” for the panthers. Most endangered species receive it automatically, but the government first categorized Florida panthers endangered in 1967, before the term existed, and the law has never caught up. Generally speaking, “critical habitat” defines an area as crucial to a species’ survival, which complicates permitting for large construction projects within that space. Critical habitat, the Congressional letter said, “would help to protect other valuable environmental resources, such as wetlands, aquifer recharge areas, drinking water supplies and the habitat of other endangered species.” Without making any final decisions, the Department of the Interior hasn’t appeared particularly warm to the idea.
In Collier County – home to Naples on the Gulf Coast and vast inland swaths of farmland and protected swamp – a handful of landowners own most of the developable land. They oppose critical habitat because limiting land’s potential uses undercuts property values. “It’s like someone saying your mother’s house is now a historical monument,” said Mitch Hutchcraft, vice president of real estate for King Ranch and Consolidated Citrus.
Developers warn that regulation could inspire an uprising of patio vigilantes intent on keeping panthers off their property.
A critical habitat designation would primarily affect large landowners such as developers. But they warn that excessive property regulation could inspire an uprising of patio vigilantes intent on keeping panthers off their property. Coming from developers, such warnings might seem exaggerated, but the threat is real. In April, someone shot a panther, risking a year in prison and a six-figure fine. The perpetrator has not been caught.
Among America’s most endangered mammals, the panthers have experienced a bizarre comeback. In the mid-1990s, when the population was even smaller and also severely inbred, scientists imported closely related cougars from Texas to breed. The revived population remains critically endangered, and many panther watchers believe another infusion of outside DNA will be necessary.
Substantial resources go into saving these high-maintenance cats. Inland from Naples, chain link fences line roads and funnel panthers into highway underpasses to prevent collisions with vehicles; so far in 2009, at least seven panthers have been struck and killed by cars. For more than two decades, scientists have flown small planes over southwest Florida collecting telemetry signals from panthers’ radio collars. They remain the standard for obtaining information on where the panthers spend time and the habitat they need.
As development encroaches on panther habitat, human-panther encounters could become more common. Because they need so much territory, a self-sustaining panther population would require panthers to expand their range. But southwest Florida, where everything was built yesterday over a blacktopped swamp, isn’t in a conservation mood. Collier County has been devastated by the foreclosure crisis. Empty strip malls and bankrupt car dealerships commemorate the housing bubble. With Florida attempting to claw back from recession, there’s a sort of red street/blue street divide between those advocating a return to rapid development, and those who want to preserve the environment and see the recession as an opportunity to re-evaluate long-held assumptions about growth. “How viable is an economy based solely on importing people?” asked Andrew McElwaine, president of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
Nowhere does panther conservation press up against development more explicitly than at a 2,800-acre plot northeast of Naples, the proposed site of a new city called Big Cypress. Currently enmeshed in a variety of approval processes, Big Cypress is in an area speckled with panther telemetry and judged crucial to the panthers’ “long-term viability” by a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Biological Conservation.
Lotz, the biologist, whose job includes capturing panthers for radio-collaring, said of Big Cypress, “I wish they would’ve picked a different name. It sounds environmentally friendly.” Big Cypress alone probably wouldn’t cause a panther extinction. It would, however, be a major step toward a Collier County plan called Rural Land Stewardship (RLS).
If completed, RLS would allow development on more than 40,000 acres that could house 400,000 people, a new urban area with the population of Miami. Much of this building would be in panther habitat. “It’s going to be hard to know which one is the last straw,” Lotz said.
Developer Collier Enterprises, a descendent of county founder Barron Collier’s business empire, plans for Big Cypress to be a town of 9,000 homes, with offices, shopping, schools, and parks on what is now scrubland and farms. It sounds audacious in Collier County, where poor souls in sandwich boards stand in the heat pointing drivers to the latest ghost-town gated communities. But the developer has demographics and sunshine on its side. Barring a global cataclysm, demand for Florida real estate will someday catch up with supply.
Collier Enterprises is one of the major landowners supporting RLS, and the company likes to point out the plan’s environmental benefits. Participating landowners will agree to abandon building rights on large sections of their holdings so they can build densely on a smaller portion of it. The result would leave large tracts of preserved land. At Big Cypress, the company says it will preserve approximately three times the town’s footprint for panthers and other species. For this reason, Big Cypress has support from most of the Naples environmental community.
Ideally there would be “not one iota of development,” said Alan Keller, the well-tanned president of the Collier County Audubon Society. “Daddy Warbucks would come in” and buy all the land. Alas, he acknowledged, “They do own the freaking land.” With no sugar daddies forthcoming, RLS seemed like the best option.
“Do you pursue a utopian idealistic route or do you look at all the options and find something that can actually be accomplished on the ground?” asked Bradley Cornell, an Audubon colleague of Keller’s. It’s a fair point. But as the landowners and environmentalists congratulate themselves on their cooperation, a big question remains: What if the panthers really do need this land? If thousands of homes are built, and the panther crowded out, the situation will be irreversible. Extinction, after all, is forever.
“We live here. We value the land,” Christian Spilker, a Collier Enterprises executive, said. But like a panther stalking deer, real estate companies have their own appetites. “We’re a development company. We need to make money.” The brilliance of RLS, as Spilker described it, is that it incentivizes businesses to conserve land. On the other hand, if Washington imposed critical habitat, Spilker said the company would have to consider building according to the current rural zoning code: one house per five-acre lot. The result, he half-threatened, would be an ecological disaster: endless sprawling estates without land set aside for conservation.
Collier Enterprises, along with other big landowners and their environmental allies, have founded the Florida Panther Protection Program (FPPP). The FPPP has commissioned a nonbinding review by six scientists whose findings will advise on panther corridors and other questions of land use. The coalition also says it will contribute up to $150 million over 40 years to panther conservation. To put the donation in very rough context, the Collier County government recently purchased a 2,512-acre piece of land for $32.5 million. At these rates, RLS leaves landowners property worth approximately $1 billion, not including revenues from farming and building.
Touring the future site of Big Cypress, Spilker – in his late 30s, dressed field trip business casual – emphasized the “moonscape” of the sandy tomato fields in prime panther habitat. It belies the notion “that we’re bulldozing a cypress swamp where panthers are sitting in the trees.” Even the wooded oases are of little value because they’re isolated. This land has “no function for wildlife,” Spilker said, since panthers “are reclusive animals who really like cover.” By contrast, under RLS’s land preservation requirements, panthers could live in the bucolic wilderness they deserve.
Industrial farms certainly aren’t an ideal habitat. But some of Spilker’s pitch is spin. According to biologist Lotz, “Panthers are habitat generalists.” While they may prefer raw wilderness, the cats have adapted to reality. They travel across farmland and hunt on its edges.
“We’re planning a central green much like Central Park,” Spilker enthused. “We’re very much envisioning cultural festivals on weekends.”
To convey Big Cypress’s potential, Spilker steered his SUV to Ave Maria. Domino’s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan envisioned Ave Maria as the college town for the eponymous new conservative Catholic university that he funded. A short drive from Big Cypress, Ave Maria’s residential streets resembled many other planned communities in Florida 2009: Roads stopped abruptly at empty lots and few homes showed signs of occupation. Ave Maria distinguished itself at the end of Pope John Paul II Boulevard, where an Italianate piazza rings a late Florida-gothic oratory, its ribbed metal roof as high as a cathedral. On a nearby field rested a large sculpture of the Virgin Mary. The statue is part of a massive marble relief that will hang on the oratory’s façade.
Tom Jones, an executive with Ave Maria developer Barron Collier Companies, acknowledged that sales had not yet fulfilled hopes, but with nationwide marketing, he was optimistic. Despite the town’s unique character, Jones insisted that Ave Maria will attract a community as diverse as any in America. We circled around the piazza en route to Ave Maria’s wraps and smoothies place, past a real estate office, a few trinket shops, and a location reserved for a supermarket. Few people were walking around in the May heat.
Clyde Butcher is one of the best known artists in southwest Florida. His photographs hang in the offices of Collier Enterprises, and, it seems, most other Naples workplaces. Butcher is known for his landscapes – huge, luscious black and whites of stagnant swamps. “It’s a chaos,” Butcher said. “How do you photograph it?” Like some mad Victorian hobbyist, Butcher wades into the muck with his antiquated bellows cameras and waits. The results turn the unruly swamps into quiet contemplative scenes. He is the Ansel Adams of the Everglades, capturing Floridians’ preferred image of their habitat and then selling it back to them.
The wilderness of southwestern Florida is real. Once Naples’s strip malls and mansions clear away, the abundance of nature is shocking. A tree is never just a tree. Each is a miniature habitat, wrapped in vines, hosting orchids and little chlorophyll blasts in their branches. Roadside drainage plops with frogs and snakes. Vultures can be seen plucking at an alligator carcass on the highway shoulder.
Butcher lives in a modest house on stilts in the middle of Big Cypress Swamp. The picture windows overlook a small pond, with low water so green it almost glows. Baby alligators loll on the edges. Butcher is a man of Santa Claus build with a beard to match, who relishes his roles as a swamp man and regional environmental conscience. “I do know this thing is wrong,” he said of Big Cypress. “It’s wrong because of the panthers. It’s wrong because of the environment.” He described the developers’ plan as “build it and figure it out later.”
“It’s just like it worked in the 1930s,” he said, and rubbed his fingers together.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida is the one major environmental group in Naples that isn’t playing nice with Collier Enterprises. The Conservancy is a significant organization with about 50 employees and 2008 assets exceeding $25 million, but when it comes to the panthers, they speak like there’s nothing to lose. McElwaine, the president, called the RLS plan an “unregulated market in panther derivatives” based on the amount of land that earns building credits for landowners. He mocks a proposed panther corridor for “turning right at the county line.”
The Conservancy maintains that it is not opposed to all development. It would like to see building happen outside primary panther habitat. McElwaine has suggested a neighboring site for Big Cypress with lower panther telemetry. Spilker said the location is a nonstarter.
As the developer’s environmental allies support RLS with the fervor of converts, the Conservancy sneers. When the developer says critical habitat would force it to explore its nuclear option, building one home per five acres, the Conservancy basically retorts ‘Make my day.’ “Clustered communities which maximize units into the smallest area requiring infrastructure are more profitable,” according to Conservancy wonk Jennifer Hecker. There’s more demand for relatively compact communities close to amenities than quasi-rural “ranchettes.”
Everyone wants to be the last arrival. “We haven’t stopped one person from moving to Florida yet,” a developer says.
“Development as a form of economic benefit is an addiction,” said Jim Beever, a senior planner with the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Commission. “It gives you a quick infusion of money but then you have to pay for it.” The infrastructure new developments need, he said, inevitably exceeds the extra tax revenue. Since at least the time of Barron Collier, a healthy economy in south Florida has been synonymous with growth. That makes Beever a minority voice arguing that the region’s economy should derive from its rural character. Beever pointed out that in his youth, Lee County (located north of Collier and home to the city of Fort Myers) was the gladiola capital of the world; in 2008, it had the country’s highest foreclosure rate.
McElwaine agrees. “Don’t east coast the west coast!” is his rallying cry, a cherry bomb launched at the Miami-Fort Lauderdale conflagration. It’s a common joke on the Gulf Coast that everyone wants to be the last person to move there. Even developer Tom Jones said he’d have been happy if they had pulled up the drawbridge once he’d claimed his own piece of paradise. Instead, he said, “We haven’t stopped one person from moving to Florida yet.”
Lawrence “Jungle Larry” Tetzlaff, a vacuum salesman turned animal-loving impresario, founded the Naples Zoo in 1969. Under the direction of his son, David, the facility has reinvented itself from roadside attraction to accredited zoological park. The younger Tetzlaff, a tall, rangy man who greeted me in a vest and safari shorts, doesn’t fit comfortably into either the local environmentalist or developer camps. “A lot of these people who want to hug the cat don’t even live in the cat’s habitat,” Tetzlaff said.
Walking to the panther cage (which he calls “generic cats” since they descend from the imported Texas cougars), Tetzlaff passed through a bear exhibit that is about to open. One display mimics a rural cabin, while the other impersonates a suburban patio, complete with swing set. The exhibit, he said, would offer safety tips like ‘Bring the grill indoors after a BBQ’ and ‘While it might be okay to play dead with a female, don’t do it around a male bear.’ “He’ll just start eating you,” Tetzlaff said.
It was before opening, and a zookeeper let the panthers out into their enclosure. Beige, almost golden, they yawned and flashed canonical predator teeth. Instead of roaring, they chirped like birds as they began the day’s pacing. The males, Rio and Apache, looked fatter than pictures of their wild counterparts. “If you kept animals in zoos the way they look in the wild, people would complain,” Tetzlaff explained.
If they are to thrive, both panthers and real estate developers need to expand their territory. This is the basic balance of wildlife conservation everywhere, but in south Florida, a fragile and geographically limited place, the tensions are particularly vivid. Real estate development will likely creep over broader pieces of land. The panthers, despite the attention they receive, may not.
“You can play God with nature up to a certain point,” Tetzlaff said. “Eventually you have to let nature play God with itself.”
Alex Halperin is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn, NY. He can be reached at alexhalperin at gmail.com.